SPOILER ALERT: While Everest is based upon real events which made headlines around the world in 1996 and spawned numerous accounts, the following includes details that may be unfamiliar to those who didn’t follow the original news.
Mounting Working Title’s Everest, which opens the Venice Film Festival on Wednesday, was a climb that Sisyphus wouldn’t have envied. A long development period came with financing issues and the inherent challenges of shooting in a decidely inhospitable environment.
Jason Clarke leads an ensemble that includes Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, Keira Knightley, John Hawkes, Michael Kelly, Emily Watson, Robin Wright and Sam Worthington. The Deep helmer Baltasar Kormakur was trusted with capturing the story that involved shooting at Base Camp and in the Dolomites with actors learning to use crampons in sub-zero temperatures and amid avalanche evacuations before getting their eyes blasted with salt on a Pinewood soundstage. (Although no one from Everest was injured, there were also tragedies on the mountain and in Nepal during and after production — trailers for the film are tagged with requests for donations to the relief effort.)
Ultimately, Universal took international and Walden Media and Cross Creek came in to finance the rest. The filmmakers persevered with what Clarke calls “a f***-off film.” He plays Rob Hall, who was leading an expedition up the mountain on May 10, 1996 when a vicious storm hit. Gyllenhaal is Scott Fischer who was in charge of a competing expedition. Both teams suffered losses when members were stranded in the Death Zone — where “human beings simply aren’t built to function at the cruising altitude of a 747,” as Clarke/Hall says in the film.
Universal begins international rollout on Everest, which will play heavily in IMAX 3D, on September 16. It takes the film out domestically on September 18.
I spoke with the hands-on Kormakur, along with producer Tim Bevan who had shepherded the project for more than a decade, and Clarke about the challenges of pulling the project together, spending time with the families of the victims, the eternal question of “why” climb that mountain — and what it’s like to follow in the footsteps of awards magnets Gravity and Birdman as the curtain rises on Venice.
DEADLINE: It’s been a long road, but now here you are opening Venice — in the same slot that launched Gravity and Birdman. Collectively, you’ve scaled heights and plumbed depths before arriving on the Lido. How does the pressure compare?
BALTASAR KORMAKUR: (Laughing) It’s probably more scary than any of the other conquests in a way. Initially, you’re like ‘Oh, yes!’ Then you’re like ‘Oh, sh*t!’ Of course you want to go with the first one, but of course I don’t want the movie to be compared to these two movies; it’s not made to be compared to any movie. I don’t want to feel like I failed if I don’t achieve what they achieve. Those are huge footsteps to fill, but nothing to do with me or the movie. This just happened; I’m happy it gets a great spot, but I didn’t realize the pitfall of that or the potential. I couldn’t tell Universal, ‘No, I don’t want to screen the movie there because I’m afraid of Gravity or Birdman’s success.’
TIM BEVAN: I think Atonement opened Venice. That worked out. I think it’s good that (Everest) is not in competition because it takes the pressure off; but it’s not a competition type movie anyway. I think it’s the perfect platform for a movie like this that sits somewhere in between being an independent movie and a full-on studio movie and is made with an independent spirit.
JASON CLARKE: I believe in what we did, and I always go back to how this story just captivated me. I was doing theater in Sydney (in 1996), and during a tech rehearsal it was on the news. I went outside for a cigarette, I was smoking in those days, and you just thought: ‘There’s a man dying on the top of Everest while his wife is carrying his child in Auckland.’ It’s the grandest of things and the smallest of things.
DEADLINE: This was a labor of love and had been in the works for many years, can you talk a bit about how it finally got off the ground?
BEVAN: It started in the early 2000s when I heard about the incident. I read the Krakauer book (Into Thin Air), I read the Boukreev book (Above the Clouds: The Diaries Of A High-Altitude Mountaineer), I read the transcripts of the accounts of the conversations that had taken place on the mountain. I learned that immediately after, in 1996, somebody at Universal had bought the rights to the transcripts of the conversations between Rob and (wife) Jan and the other stuff that goes on at Base Camp. They’d also bought the rights to Beck Weathers’ book (Left For Dead) and commissioned a script, but then it had gone dormant. So, Working Title being part of Universal, we said ‘Can we have that please?’ and they very sweetly said yes.
Then ensued a number of years. The critical person that I reached out to from the reality side of it was David Breashers who had been on the mountain in 1996 and shot the IMAX film (Everest: Conquering Thin Air). He was a film person basically but also had known all of the players quite well and had climbed with them. And also he was somebody, whether it was survivor’s guilt or whether it was just wanting to do the right thing, he’d very much kept the stories of these people alive. He’d started to do these lectures about the incident at quite senior institutions where he used it as a case study in leadership which is one of the subtexts of the movie between Fischer and Hall… So he kept this thing alive and Steven Daldry responded very favorably to the material. And, I think what happened then — and it’s a good thing the film didn’t happen then for all sorts of reasons — we tried to cover too many stories and pursue too many strands. And then for whatever reason it fizzled as films do.
It was in the late 2000s that we commissioned Bill Nicholson to do a draft. Bill was the one who said ‘We’ve got to weed this out and make this film about two people. One is a guy who leads people, goes up a mountain and doesn’t make it; and the other one a guy who shouldn’t be up a mountain, is a manic depressive, and when things go wrong you would expect him not to make it.’ That would be the backbone and everyone else would be the supporting characters. It was quite simple really, but it required someone to say ‘Forget all of the research.’ He took that line through and chucked all the research away which is a really good idea just to get so that there was a film story and a film structure and an emotional thing at the heart of it.
KORMAKUR: We did Contraband together (with Working Title) and then I had done The Deep. It wasn’t out, but they were aware of it and they sent me the script of Everest. When I read it, we had a long way to go with the script, but I thought this is exactly the kind of project I’d been looking for. A bigger version of what I’d been trying to do at home. I wanted to make those films closer to my heart. I put huge offers aside to try to get this film made.
The situation was very uncertain for a long time… it took around two years; also to convince them of doing it with an ensemble instead of one movie star and putting all of the money above the line. I have done films where half the money went to the stars and I wanted to get the money into the movie. I wanted the authenticity of the story, but also to do it commercially. David Kosse, who was running international at Universal at the time, was very supportive. I cornered him at a premiere and he said ‘Ok, you can do it.’ It probably would not have happened without him.
DEADLINE: So you had a couple of false starts — and even a competing picture at one point – then much closer to production, some of the financing fell out. What happened there and how did you get back up and running?
BEVAN: Through all of this we weren’t quite sure how we were going to finance it. The studio didn’t want to do it as a full-on studio film and that’s understandable because of the way the studios are working now. But the one big supporter of it was David Kosse, who said, ‘Here, I’ll put a cornerstone in and give you a bunch of money against foreign, but you need to go and find the rest of it.’ Because there was so much money attached to the development of the film — it had been through Universal in the 1990s and it had also accumulated a lot of development spend from Working Title throughout the early 2000s with the stops and starts of Daldry — it was too expensive to extract entirely from Universal.
Then in 2013, we were looking for who to do it with and in fact I’d had a conversation with Brian Oliver from Cross Creek, we’d done Rush together, and he said he’d be quite interested in doing it. But for various reasons, most of which were to do with various agents and things, it went up the Emmett/Furla avenue for a while. The money never came and we were getting into a very dire position because we’d assembled this group of great actors. So I phoned Brian, and Walden in the process had made it known that they would be interested. We put it together with them, but we were right, right up against the wall. And, it was a film where you could have spent any amount of money on it but we had to make it for a finite amount so with the tax credits and Universal input and Walden and Cross Creek, it came to just under $60M.
DEADLINE: How did you come to the cast?
BEVAN: One of the reasons that we got such a strong cast was that it read like an ensemble so everyone thought ‘There’s something in this part I can do something with.’ It was one of those things where the talent made itself known that they were interested in doing it. I think they all liked the smell of it and by the time we got to that point it had a sort of integrity stamp across the top of it. With the combination of Baltasar who’s done both commercial movies and the more artistic foreign language movies, it felt there would be a credibility to it and the word had got out that it was going to be a bit of an adventure, they weren’t just going to go and sit in a caravan somewhere and wait to be called.
CLARKE: I had read the Krakauer book and all the other stuff that came around it. I had been to Base Camp just as a traveler and I knew Tim was doing it in 2004 and I thought ‘I’m never gonna get to do that movie.’ Then it came around again and I met Balt and had a really good chat. Christian Bale was going to do it. I knew he was playing Rob, but I said ‘Here’s what I think.’ And then Balt offered it to me when Christian fell out. I really wanted to do this and to do it in the way that Tim had initially set it up; having a relationship with Jan and the New Zealanders and bringing in a guy like Balt. He’s an ‘I’ll do it myself if nobody else will’ kind of guy. It’s weird on a mountain, it needs a guy like that to get up and make sense of 111 people.
DEADLINE: So when you’re deep into prep and the rumblings start from a financing perspective, how much does that affect your process? Was there a point you thought you’d have to get off the mountain so to speak?
CLARKE: Oh, yes! I was in Paris and got a very serious phone call and then I got two other offers. You hope the film comes together and you’re trying to decipher what people are saying — what’s real and what’s not real. You’re trying to make a living and at the end of the day you just go, ‘I’ve gotta do what I believe in.’ When you looked at it on paper, it was a decent-sized budget for a mountain movie with dudes in goggles and snow suits. Balt came along and crafted, forgive my French, a f***-off film. It’s got spectacle and integrity and heart.
KORMAKUR: You try to dig yourself into the script, but of course you’re aware when prep stops for two months and all the work might have been for nothing. You have to have this weird belief. It’s probably why people make films in the first place. You have to be a bit out there to believe you can do it. You have to believe until it totally falls apart. Some place in my heart or brain or both, there is a very strong belief I’m going to pull it off. But in the end, that was just the first hurdle, getting it financed. There were complications because there is no book on how to shoot a film on Everest.
BEVAN: The difference between those of us who’ve done this for quite a long time and those of us who come and go from it is that when you get your teeth into something, it’s the most difficult thing to let go. There are a few occasions where there were some, rightly so, very interesting conversations about whether we should be continuing to do this or not. But I always thought this was just a cinematic experience. Particularly in these times when you look to the wider thing where the sorts of films that we make are quite squeezed because in the studio arena you’ve got the resources going to much bigger rollercoaster type movies, and understandably because that’s where all of the money is. On the artistic side of filmmaking, there are less people making them and less people buying them and premium television is occupying that space in such a big way so that when you do find a piece of material that is properly cinematic and also sellable, you think ‘Hang on a second there’s something in this.’ So if you can translate that and also if you can give the audience the real sense of being on a mountain… You think ‘It’s real, I’m there’ and that was one of the things we thought back in the early 2000s that we’d like to do. But thank God the film didn’t get made then because you wouldn’t have been able to do it in the way it’s been done at all.
DEADLINE: Is it fair to say Everest became your Everest?
BEVAN: (Laughing) Yeah, I think Everest became everyone’s Everest who worked on it to be quite honest. You’ve got to really thank particularly everyone who hung in there. Jason hung in there like unbelievably. To start with when we were noodling around with the finances, everybody wanted a big name and in our hearts Balt and I always knew that Jason was the right person for the part and that we absolutely wanted to cast laterally so that we wanted them to be known faces because there’s so many people on the mountain. But you didn’t want somebody so big on the mountain that you wouldn’t believe it… Simon Beaufoy did a really great job post-Bill Nicholson adding character to all of the characters.
DEADLINE: So all of those pieces are in place, the money is there, the cast is locked, but now you have to get them and a crew 16,000 feet up the side of a mountain in January. What was the prep like?
KORMAKUR: There are things you can’t prep. What’s going to happen on a mountain? It’s almost like going into a game of chess, you can’t just go ‘I’m gonna go here, then I’m gonna go there.’ There are so many moving elements of nature you have to deal with. I was very clear I wanted to start in Nepal because I wanted the actors to take the same journey as the characters and get to know each other. The further you go from civilization, the more you see the core of people. I wanted the group of people to meet and slowly you understand who is who and what the motives are.
We stayed for a few days — which is part of the acclimatizing because Kathmandu is quite high up. Then we took helis and planes up to the airport which is the most dangerous in the world. While we were scouting, we had landed there and then came back later and there was a crashed helicopter that wasn’t crashed when we left. From there, there are no vehicles allowed so you have to trek with donkeys half of the way and then yaks to carry the equipment. You have A-list movie stars with no assistance. In some places, helis would drop off nets with equipment because they were the only vehicles. We went pretty high like that and then got helis to move people to even higher places and that’s when people started to fall apart from altitude sickness. I’d never done that before, (where I was wondering) ‘How long can you shoot until people start getting sick?’ As soon as there was a sign of people having trouble, we took them down, but if the bad weather comes you can’t get them down.
We had to prep on set because loads of actors were coming and going and we had to teach everyone to climb and how to get around. It’s so nasty cold up there in January. You wouldn’t go out of your tent to take a piss in the night because it was so cold. When we went to the Dolomites, it was -30 Celsius at 7 AM and you had 12 hours in front of you and five or six weeks in front of you. They haven’t had more snow in over 100 years. Almost every day there was an avalanche warning on the call sheet. We had quite a few evacuations and even lost the set and had to dig it out.
CLARKE: Marty Henderson, who plays Andy Harris, and I knew each other previously. We went and did some great climbs. That’s a benefit, somebody pays you and gives you a great guide. At Christmas, we were rehearsing in London and there was a massive storm. We grabbed a guide and did night climbs on Ben Nevis. The big winds were great for that feeling from the end of the film, for us to be in atrocious weather in the dark… It’s a serious business being out in the elements. At 16,000 feet, if you’re trekking to Base Camp, you acclimatize slowly. We were choppered up. It’s very difficult getting used to the elements until you get used to regulating your body heat; then using the crampons; getting used to the food; waking up at 4 AM and it’s very cold and strange. You can’t just run at it like a bull at a gate. It’s not like pulling 14, 15 hour days in Pinewood on concrete floors while they blast salt at your retina.
BEVAN: A really important person in all of this was Nicky Kentish-Barnes who produced the film with me and Eric (Fellner). She came on board probably 2012-2013. While I was rushing around trying to put the money together and hold the whole thing in place, she was steadily working out how we would go about making the movie.
DEADLINE: You sought input from the families of the real people in the film. What was it like working with them on something so delicate?
BEVAN: I think if you’re making a film that’s based on real experiences, there’s a moral responsibility of the filmmakers to explain to the people whose lives were either torn up or involved, to explain what you’re doing. Nicky and myself and the scriptwriters slowly reached out to everybody. And Guy Cotter was our technical adviser and main safety adviser and he’s a guy you’d want to be around when things go wrong. He was very good, but one of the critical people to reach out to was Jan Arnold who’s depicted in the film by Keira. It’s very much her story and she plays a key part at the end of it. She was quite resistant to start with in the early 2000s and it wasn’t until 2008/09 that she came on board and that was a really important thing. September of the year before we made it, Jason and myself and Baltasar and Evan Hayes went down to New Zealand to meet with her and various other people and had a very intense weekend where they shared the story and played us images and tapes of things that had been recorded on the mountain during the incident which really added some great flesh to the story which we then translated back into the script.
CLARKE: I did a couple trips with Guy to meet Rob’s friends and spend some time with Jan. She worked with me and we spent four days together. Later, we Skyped. I wanted her help on a couple of scenes. I wanted her to get to know me and me to get to know her and have some kind of contact. Meeting (Rob and Jan’s daughter) Sarah was intense for me. She’s this tall, beautiful, lovely girl who never knew her father who is this iconic New Zealander. I met Rob’s brother and met Jan’s brother who is a homicide detective. He was very skeptical. He put me on the spot the way a homicide detective can. He was asking, ‘Why do you want to play my brother?’ ‘Why can you do this?’
Then it all came full circle. I got an email from all the family last week that said some of the nicest things anyone’s ever said to me. They said that for them (the movie) was like spending another two hours with Rob 19 years later. It was probably the best compliment I’ve ever had. You know, the New Zealanders never really talked about this after; they didn’t write books or do tours. They’ve done what they always do. Jan’s a doctor; Guy took over Adventure Consultants.
DEADLINE: The main crew was back at Pinewood when the deadly avalanche hit Everest in April 2014. You did have a second unit there but they were unhurt. Then this year there was the devastating Nepal earthquake. Did that give you pause with regard to the film?
BEVAN: The 2015 earthquake wasn’t really about the mountain community, it was more about the country of Nepal. In 2014, you think ‘I’m glad that nobody got hurt who was working for us and that you’re very (lucky).’ From talking to David and to Guy and having immersed oneself in the story so much it is really, really dangerous up there. When you’re between Base Camp and Camp One and you go through this icefall, it’s one of the most dangerous places on Earth and between Camp 4 and the top of the mountain, basically you’re in the Death Zone so it’s a very, very, very dangerous place. So you know if you’ve got people up there, you’re just relieved when you hear from them and they come back.
KORMAKUR: It was a horrible morning for everyone, just getting the news. No one who was part of our team had gotten into trouble, but if it’s not our tragedy, it’s somebody else’s.
DEADLINE: Balt, we’ve seen you be very hands on with your previous movies like The Deep. What is it about these immersive experiences that you enjoy?
KORMAKUR: There’s something like a fulfillment in that need of testing yourself in the elements. Because of my background, it’s a natural choice to ask me to do that and at the same time, I like to be able to experience the story. In some way, I feel more equipped to tell it if I have some of it myself. I don’t want to sit in a van and talk to actors on a walkie-talkie. I have a need to be there with the actors. It doesn’t mean it’s a better film, but it’s a personal film.
DEADLINE: You’ve said about The Deep, ‘Nature is the enemy.’ How do you feel about that after Everest?
KORMAKUR: I love nature, but I think the hero creates the villain and the villain creates the hero. Everest is not a villain, but when you start fighting against it, it becomes that. It’s not like I’m saying nature is our enemy, but the way we deal with it. I think the movie is quite critical of the commercialization of nature. I live in a country where people fly in helicopters to a volcano to get a selfie. I’m not a preacher or a judge. I like the quote by Kieslowski: ‘I’m not changing the world, I’m trying to have a conversation.’
DEADLINE: Everest was made on a $60M budget. How do you bring such a big-scale movie in extreme conditions in with that kind of money?
KORMAKUR: It was very precisely how I wanted to shoot the film. I wanted to shoot it epic, but keep the intimacy of an indie film. How the characters interact is naturalistic. Also I had a great coworker, Dadi (Einarsson), the VFX supervisor who worked on Gravity, and we planned a lot and were very specific in what we wanted and had to study the mountain to understand really well. I also come from the background of indie filmmaking so there’s a lot of things that you can do if you just don’t tell the studio; just go and do it and get it and figure it out and here are ways to cut around that. It was a tremendous job and everyone who came into Everest was supportive of getting it made. You have to have a project that people have a passion for, then every idea has a possible way of being figured out. You might remake a film that cost $2M for $20M and it might look like $50-60M, but it’s just a couple bigger shots. There was not a huge difference in scope, but applying this kind of mentality can get a lot for our dime.
BEVAN: Nicky and her production team come from a low budget background. It’s one of those calculated risks where you think basically ‘OK, should we get a big budget group of people or should we get a low budget group of people?’ We went for the lower budget so it was people who were stepping up rather than stepping down to do it and there’s an element of them not knowing better and there’s also an element of coming at it like you do on an independent film which is for all the right reasons to get it done. And then it was just spent very wisely to put the value on the screen. I’m a firm believer that you can do that on most films.
DEADLINE: Apart from the scope and adventure, what else do you hope people take away?
KORMAKUR: I would love people to take the multi-layered story. The reasons for why things go wrong is not because of the storm only. You can see there’s a lot of mistakes. I would love people to see the authenticity. We spent a lot of time traveling the world to understand these people; to meet survivors and relatives so I would love the climbing community to root for the film as a realistic film. I’m sure there have been smaller realistic films in some ways, but this film is authentically realistic and spectacle which is what I was trying to make.
BEVAN: Hopefully they’ll have had a really epic big screen experience where they’ve had a rollercoaster journey with a film that in a way does tick a genre box because at the end of the day, it’s a disaster film. But also being transported to a place they never thought they’d go. Balt was always very keen on the 3D transfer. I’m somewhat skeptical about 3D because I’ve mainly seen it to see films for my children, but I think there are occasions, films like Gravity or Life Of Pi being two recent examples, where the 3D really enhanced the experience. As we researched, you learnt that you can muck around a lot with what you do. What you get a sense of is depth as much as possible and also when people are sitting around talking in tents you can really dial the 3D down. But then it really adds to the experience when you go outside and dial it up and you think ‘Oh my God these people are really on top of the world.’
DEADLINE: There is a scene early in the film where Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly) asks the group going up, “Why?” Did you ever find an answer yourselves?
BEVAN: One of the problems in filmmaking terms, and it was always there, was ‘Why do we care about these people.’ You know, ‘Fuck ‘em, they’re just crazy guys who go up a mountain’ sort of thing, and the whole hubris thing was an issue. Actually, I think it’s a very clever scene that it sort of explains it and it doesn’t explain it. They’re all nice people and they want to do something different in life and there’s an element of the metaphor in the movie for all of our lives which is that you go and do things because you’re alive. That’s the reason for testing yourself. Now, I’m never going to go and test myself on Everest, but I sort of understand the psychology of people who might want to.
KORMAKUR: Most climbers really can’t answer this question. I think from my experience — riding through the highlands of Iceland on my horses — you get to know yourself in nature differently than you’ve known yourself in other places. There are all kinds of things that you don’t expect of what you’re made of — it’s almost like you travel back 1,000 years in human development and become like a Neanderthal. It’s not until I started making the movie that I started analyzing my trips. You ride for 14 hours a day in difficult terrain; this is your summer vacation. You go to back to work and you’re totally wasted but energized for the whole winter.
DEADLINE: Tim, you’ve said this is a mixture of a studio film and an indie. With the studios making what you’ve called ‘rollercoaster’ movies, how do you, Working Title, continue to navigate the waters?
BEVAN: There’s room for intelligent popcorn. We’re in a position where we’ve done it a lot before and if anyone is going to be trusted, we’d be one of the handful. I think you just have to be more tenacious than ever. The interesting thing is that these films are being financed by the Cross Creeks and the Waldens and various different financing operations. Let’s hope it works because it’s important for the industry to have people like that around, and it’s dependent upon movies like this finding an audience.